Oddly enough, the Old Testament book of Joel hatches from an infestation of insects – more specifically, a swarm of locusts so efficiently devastating the countryside of Israel that famine and starvation are very real possibilities.
By Joel’s reckoning, the buzzing disaster swarms large in divine judgment upon the Lord’s sinful people, who eventually get their acts together and turn from their wicked ways. In response, God exterminates the locusts and gives the prophet Joel a message of hope that endures today to provide our Scripture lesson for Pentecost.
A little more background will help you understand why Joel’s cryptic words pack such a punch.
Back in the day, only a select few enjoy the privilege of speaking and understanding the Word of God. But in Joel’s predicted new age of the coming Messiah, God vows to reveal the divine self to all people. Joel specifically mentions abilities to speak in God’s sted, to dream big dreams, and to glimpse grand visions – all intended to ensure that everyone enjoys a deep sense of God’s loving presence and God’s eternal will for all Creation. In the coming Kingdom, Joel declares, all God’s people will be prophets – and priests and kings, because all will be anointed by the Spirit whom God pours out.
The vast, sweeping story of God with us includes any number of instances when God pours out the Holy Spirit, but in Old Testament times, long were the odds of actually seeing that happen. If someone was an honest-to-goodness “messiah” figure – “anointed” with an extra measure of God’s Spirit, most everyone knew about it, because these blessed few were public figures. There was the king; there were the priests. There now and then were prophets, like Joel, recognized for quite likely having received a special anointing as bearers and deliverers of heaven’s messages.
But that was about it. Anointings to royal, priestly, or prophetic offices tended to be rare. Remember, Israel was no divine democracy but a theocracy in which God did the choosing of those deemed sufficiently important to receive a spiritual anointing and who would not – most often, not.
Then along comes Joel and his stunning message that points to a leveling of the playing field where God’s Holy Spirit is moving. She one day will come and fill just about everybody without distinction. The day is surely coming when there’d be no need to identify those few folks who had received a messiah-like anointing of God’s Spirit, because daily reality will find everybody among God’s people so spiritually blessed!
Young and old, boys and girls, men and women, rich and poor, master and servant, the likely and the unlikely: Everybody will have the Spirit descend upon them to empower visions, and enable dreams, and inspire ways of seeing and understanding God and God’s Kingdom that simply had never been available to the community’s rank and file. Everyone will see the great wonders that God plans to work on the earth and in the heavens, and they will understand who’s who and what’s what in the cosmic scheme of things.
Listen for such grand understanding, with the help of that same Spirit, who in baptism anoints you, me, and all whom the Lord chooses as his own.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:27-32)
Plain and simple, Joel points to Pentecost – once a routine, annual Jewish festival of the harvest that the Holy Spirit suddenly transforms into a pivotal moment in the story of God with us.
Joel points to an amazing day when the Holy Spirit of God in Christ Jesus infuses every member of the Church such that everyone and everything changes.
Across a couple millennia of Church history and within the hearts of untold countless believers, that same Spirit – so dramatically and powerfully poured forth on that most-memorable Pentecost – has been present and active, even when there’s no such obvious drama unfolding in our midst.
Indeed, it’s as simple as that. “I will pour out my Spirit in those days,” Joel declares. Some centuries later, the apostle Peter on Pentecost says that “those days” are now “these days.” And God’s people have been living in “these days” ever since. We live, and we are so very, very blessed to live, “in these days,” in these very days that so many for so long had pined and yearned to see and experience.
To wrap your head around such incredibly good news, try thinking of the Holy Spirit as somewhat like the very air you breathe. The Spirit is the bright, breezy atmosphere in which we live, move, and have our being. She is the very stuff of life, and without God the Spirit, we suffocate and die – as individuals and as a body.
Since God breathes the Spirit into you and me very much like the very air we breathe, then it’s no stretch to claim that, like the ongoing, mostly unconscious act of respiration, you just might not be very aware of the Spirit’s presence in your life. Most days you have to stop what you’re doing if you want to pay attention to your own breathing, and about the only times you actually do so are situations in which you fear not getting enough air – like getting stuck in an elevator, or headfirst in a small cave, or waking up at 4 in the morning with sinuses so stuffed that you’re gasping for air.
So also with paying attention to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Though we now live immersed in God’s outpoured Spirit, our days are not typically filled with the dreams, visions, and portents of which Joel speaks. So, it’s easy to forget just how much we benefit from the indwelling Spirit of God. We mostly are unaware of the gifts, the insights, and the abilities that the Spirit alone provides to perform our assigned jobs in the Kingdom of God.
But that lack of awareness is no reason not to make ourselves aware now and again, and to do so with profound gratitude for the truth of Joel’s predictions, as they permeate the community of faith today and forevermore!
First, understand that the Holy Spirit is given to people who believe in Jesus to bind them together with God and one another.
The Holy Spirit marks our adoption as God’s children, by faith confident in the forgiveness of our sins and assured of our salvation. Our experience of eternal life does not begin at the moment of death but when you and I trust in Jesus, and when God the Father, and God the Son, place God the Spirit within us. And along the way, believe it or not, the Spirit is ever transforming us more and more into the image of God in Christ!
The Holy Spirit is God’s empowering presence that dwells within followers of Jesus, calls to mind the sin and brokenness that weigh heavy on mortal lives and spirits, and produces lasting changes in character, personality, and disposition. The Spirit teaches the truth about Jesus and makes known his presence, producing God’s love in human hearts and minds.
Further, the Spirit helps you in your weakness, interceding on your behalf and inspiring your prayers – even praying on your behalf with groans too deep for words when you don’t know what or how to pray. (Romans 8:26-27)
The Spirit gives us specific insight and wisdom, teaches us how to interpret the words of the Bible, communicates with God on our behalf, and empowers us to live according to God’s designs.
The Holy Spirit equips us for work and service.
She gives you and me the skills and abilities we need to share God’s love – spiritual gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, holiness, and reverence (Isaiah 11:2), such that our individual lives and collective living continue to produce “spiritual fruit” for the common good: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
If your life blossoms with such sweet fruit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, then rest assured the Spirit indwells your body and soul, and all her benefits are yours, producing peace and calm that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). And the Spirit promises even greater things for those whose trust fully rests in the Lord God in Jesus Christ.
We cannot know – and thankfully neither do we have to experience – what life would be like without God’s Spirit. And for that blessing, let all glory and praise be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, June 4, 2023. It is last of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Elizabeth Achtemeier and Scott Hoezee inform the message.